I first read The Scent of Water in my late twenties, when I was longing for a husband. Little did I know that I would marry an Englishman when I was thirty and be transported to the setting of this novel. Or that the quick “yes” I said to moving to his country would become an act of obedience when I was missing family, friends, and good plumbing. I couldn’t know that this novel was in some way preparing me, for one of its main themes is obedience.
Elizabeth Goudge wrote during and after the Second World War, when the country was reeling from hardship and loss of life. Her yearnings for a simpler time – for a pastoral idyll without machines or motorcars – are apparent in the novel, for the main character, Mary, moves from chaotic London to the quiet Chilterns to live in the cottage she inherited from her namesake cousin. This uprooting provides the setting for Mary’s growth, not only spiritually but in learning how to love and be loved.
When I reread the novel for the third or fourth time recently, again I was struck by the author’s startling insights, such as the corrosive effect of sin on a person; how when we strengthen our will and follow God, ignoring our emotions, we grow and flourish; the masks we don and why; how faith can flourish through suffering; the importance of wonder and gratitude. Some of her writing is a bit clunky or rooted in its time – for instance, I cringed when she said that a character could “run like a Red Indian.” But the truths she conveys are worth the sometimes awkward characterizations or phrases.
This time of reading, I was touched most by the author’s descriptions of the depression suffered by Cousin Mary, the woman from whom Mary inherited the cottage, and whom she got to know through her journals. Cousin Mary would have long periods of falling into the blackness of despair, when she would fear losing her reason forever. She wrote in her journal of meeting an odd old man who came to tea and gave her advice that changed her life forever: “‘My dear,’ he said, ‘love, your God, is a trinity. There are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these, “Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy Hands.” Not difficult to remember. If in times of distress you hold to these you will do well’” (pp. 94-95).
I was glad to learn that this prayer was first uttered by Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth-century English clergyman and poet. Lately I’ve benefited by praying this trinity to the Trinity, especially at night if I can’t sleep.
Why not pick up one of Elizabeth Goudge’s books? She will challenge you even as she transports you to a gentler time of village life in England.
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge (Hendrickson, ISBN 978-1598568417). This is a recent version published in the States; I have to admit I found it a bit jarring to have the text Americanized!